As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…
For such a relentlessly dark film, Star Trek: Nemesis ends on a bittersweet note of hope, but one that feels false. It serves as a good allegory for the film in general: a point of departure that never feels *right*.
Cast your mind back to 1991. The Undiscovered Country brought the curtain down after 25 years on the adventure of The Original Series crew with a stylised flourish. The so-called ‘end of history’ predicted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama allowed Nicholas Meyer’s film to frame the first Star Trek generation’s final adventure around the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and use it as a neat parallel for the embrace of a new world: peace between the Federation and their most intractable enemies, the Klingons, one we would see reflected in Worf being part of the Enterprise crew in the middle of the 24th century. It felt symbolic. It felt earned. It felt worthy of such iconic characters.
When you consider Nemesis, do you feel the same way for the crew of The Next Generation? Is this either a fitting end to a 15 year run which took in seven seasons of a hugely popular TV series (far more popular in its time than The Original Series was while broadcast) and multiple movies? What really does Nemesis *say* about this crew or who they are at this point? I’m not convinced it says much of anything or leaves any of them, even Jean-Luc Picard, at a reasonable point of closure. It just feels like a film made to satisfy the box office needs of a franchise that, by this point, was running out of steam. Hence: darker, bigger, more explosive, higher stakes, a megalomaniacal villain and a story that taps into the most celebrated Star Trek movie of all.
Nemesis ends with shellshock for the characters which mirrors the unfinished trauma of a film which serves as no real ending at all. We would have to wait almost two decades before we saw the seeds of a true conclusion to the Next Generation era.
With the death of Shinzon, the destruction of the Scimitar, and indeed the sacrifice of Data to save Picard and the Enterprise, the concluding scenes are filled with the kind of mournful sadness that didn’t mark The Undiscovered Country.
The moment after Data dies is quite effective, as the crew on the bridge simply have no idea how to react. Donatra, the allied Romulan commander who turned on Shinzon and aided the Battle of the Bassen Rift, doesn’t understand what has just happened to the Enterprise crew as she offers assistance. “They don’t know our procedures” a gutted Picard tells Geordi, with Patrick Stewart doing a wonderful line in stunned shock, while attempting to remain focused and on point. It’s quite moving. And it’s telling that Donatra’s promise that “you have earned a friend in the Romulan Empire today” happens at the point such an olive branch, maybe the first the Romulans have ever truly given Starfleet toward peace, means nothing to Picard or his crew.
On a side note, there remains come Star Trek: Picard a level of ambiguity as to just whether such peace ever came to be. The destruction of Romulus thanks to the supernova appears to have triggered the collapse of the Neutral Zone as a geopolitical borderland. There are references to a treaty with the Federation and the transformation of the Empire into the ‘Romulan Free State’, which sounds far less imperial and much more open and democratic, but there remains references in Picard to ‘the Empress’. Until canon proves otherwise, I choose to believe said Empress is Donatra, who picked up the pieces after Shinzon’s death and helped rebuild the Empire. Who knows? A lot happened in the subsequent two decades and much of it was not good for the Romulan people.
Nemesis takes time, anyway, in the crew saying a necessary goodbye to Data, in which they reminisce about the man they knew. Riker remembers, in a fitting callback to the pilot episode of The Next Generation, Encounter at Farpoint: “The first time I saw Data, he was leaning against a tree in the holodeck… trying to whistle. Funniest thing I ever saw. No matter what he did he couldn’t get the tune right”. Riker struggles to recall the song, which is actually ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, and it almost seems fitting that Riker’s problematic memory here is in step with Nemesis not operating in sync with its own history. The reality is, this shouldn’t have been the end for this crew, whether Data was sacrificed or not. There remains something unfinished about it all.
The idea appears to be for transition. Not into a new series of films or anything. For all of them, they knew this was the end. Data was dead, Riker and Troi are married and heading off for Riker *finally* becoming a Captain and assuming command of the U.S.S. Titan (the adventures of which would be chronicled in a whole series of non-canonical tie-in books). Riker even confirms this when Picard asks where his destination lies: “The Neutral Zone, sir. We’re heading up the new task force. Apparently the Romulans are interested in talking” which of course ties into the idea Donatra would have encouraged a dialogue between their people, and suggests the kind of peace that The Undiscovered Country did between the Federation and the Klingons, but much more loosely. As if it isn’t sure the franchise would ever truly go down that road (and, guess what, they kind of didn’t).
Picard would have welcomed aboard at the end a Commander Madden, Riker’s replacement, played by Steven Culp in scenes which ended up on the cutting room floor, perhaps because they would have added to the sense of a false continuity. Audiences may also have baulked at a new guy stepping into some very big shoes, a new Number One. It could have been a nice way to confront Picard’s anxiety across the film about change, and have him come to terms with adopting a new crew for adventures we won’t see as an audience, but it could also have contradicted our sense of closure. Nemesis wants us to feel like this is a swansong, but it lacks the finality of Deep Space Nine’s finale, even if it spares us the abruptness of Voyager’s.
In the end, perhaps fittingly, the final moment is Picard looking to find Data’s humanity in a revived B-4. “I wanted you to know what kind of man he was. In his quest to be more like us …he helped us to see what it means to be human” Picard tells the slow android, and in a way this feels like John Logan attempting to put a capstone on The Next Generation in this scene, and underscore the point of what the series was always about – seeking out new worlds, but finding the humanity in those adventures. “His curiosity about every facet of human nature allowed all of us to see the best parts of ourselves. He evolved. He embraced change because he always wanted to be better than he was”. Picard tells himself here, even more than B-4. He sees Data, and what he achieved, as recognition of his own achievements as the man who most tried to encourage this in him.
This is why it perhaps makes sense for Star Trek: Picard to be grounded in the same quest for Picard, in some sense. He says much of this, in a different way, to Data’s ‘daughter’ Soji Asha in Broken Pieces while telling her about Data. Twenty years on, he hasn’t come to terms with it, especially given B-4 ends up being a false flag. Logan seeds the idea, as B-4 hums the song ‘Blue Skies’, which Data sings at the Riker-Troi wedding, as suggestive that Data’s memory engram transfer to B-4 worked, and slowly he might transform into a new, revived version of Data. If Data learned to be more human, B-4 might learn to become more *Data*, and Picard and his friends would get back what they feel they lost so suddenly. It accounts for Picard’s reassured smile that we end on. It’s a smile of hope.
While Nemesis to be commended for ending on this human beat, and this crystallisation of the core tenet of The Next Generation as a series, the choices made by this film are not made right by such a moment. It remains an entertaining film on some levels, particularly for Star Trek fans, but an infuriating one on others. It attempts to coast on past franchise glories and, to an extent, takes the cast and crew for granted. It doesn’t afford them the opportunity of a final film which truly reflects the long journey they had been on. For all its struggles with cancellation and being off air, The Original Series got the final movie they deserved. The same cannot be said for Captain Picard and his next generation.
What we can at least be grateful for is that Nemesis is not the last time we see Picard, Data, Riker, Troi and perhaps one day a few others. But that, as they say, is another story…
Don’t miss out on the previous parts of this series:
Or other Scene by Scene movie breakdowns: